What can I do to improve my wireless network?

We are all becoming more and more dependent on Wi-Fi networks to support a range of devices that have no other options for networking, and not just tablets and smartphones. Many laptops no longer have a physical network connection. Our dependence on our Wi-Fi networks will only increase as wearables and the Internet of Things become more widely used.

If we are so dependent on our Wi-Fi network then at the very least it should be reliable and secure. We should be able to walk into our home or office, open our devices, access our applications and work. Ideally, the wireless experience will be transparent and secure, just like a wired experience. However, the reality is usually far from this with many of us having to suffer at the mercy of a Wi-Fi network that is far from reliable with a big question mark as to whether our connection is secure or not.

Laptop and phone

I appreciate that not all charities can afford enterprise grade wireless network equipment but even home and small office Wi-Fi equipment can be optimised and configured with a reasonable level of security. This blog looks at some simple steps you can take to ensure your Wi-Fi network is operating as efficiently and securely as possible. This is intended for small charities using a home or small office grade wireless router.

Never assume the Wi-Fi signal will pass through your walls.

Wi-Fi uses radio frequency (RF) signals between your device and the wireless router to connect to the network, the internet and beyond. Any building material will reduce the strength of RF signals as they pass through. Some materials degrade RF signals more than others. Porous materials such as bricks and breeze blocks allow RF signals to pass reasonably well. At the other end of the scale, extrapolated metal lath (wire mesh – similar to chicken wire used as a plaster support in walls and ceilings) and foil backed plaster board may reduce the RF signal level considerably. Windows and doors also vary considerably.

RF friendly building materials that allow RF to pass through relatively unimpeded are both an advantage and a disadvantage. We may want the RF signal from our own router and devices to pass through our internal walls and floors but we want our outer walls to block as much of our neighbours Wi-Fi signals as possible. RF signals from other nearby networks can impact on the performance of your network.

As a rule of thumb, lower radio frequencies travel further but provide less bandwidth than higher radio frequencies. Small office and home grade wireless networks use one or two of two radio frequency bands – 2.4GHz and 5GHz. 2.4GHz travels further and is better at passing through building materials than 5GHz but this comes at a cost. 2.4GHz provides less bandwidth, and therefore, less data speed than the 5GHz band.

Considerations

Place your Wi-Fi router as close to the centre of your office as possible. The ‘centre’ in relation to where all your Wi-Fi users are likely to be working. If your Wi-Fi router is also your Internet modem you may be restricted by the length of the ADSL cable. In which case, aim to position the router in as much free space as possible.

Be aware of the RF requirements of your Wi-Fi equipment. WI-Fi equipment will operate to one or more IEEE standards. IEEE 802.11b and IEEE 802.11g use 2.4GHz. IEEE 802.11n uses 2.4GHz and/or 5GHz. IEEE 802.11a and IEEE 802.11ac uses 5GHz.

If your office is particularly RF unfriendly you may need to consider using Wi-Fi extenders (make sure they are compatible with your wireless router) or upgrading to an enterprise grade Wi-Fi network using multiple wireless access points. Ideally the links from the internet broadband router to any additional access points will be via data (Ethernet) cables.

If cabling is out of the question and your only option is to use Powerline Ethernet technology (e.g. Wi-Fi extenders that use mains power wiring as a medium), be aware that this may have a significant impact on performance.

Avoid exposing your wireless router to unnecessary interference.

As I mentioned above, 2.4GHz has better range and is more able to pass through building materials than 5GHz, as a result 2.4GHz is more widely used by a wide range of other devices such as cordless phones, Bluetooth speakers, door bells and intercoms. The 2.4GHz band also has a limited range of channels so overlapping is inevitable. The 2.4GHz band is, therefore, very popular and suffers much more from interference coming through the walls and windows from external sources. Other sources of interference to the 2.4GHz band include microwave ovens, fluorescent lights and other nearby IEEE 802.11b, IEEE 802.11g and IEEE 802.11n Wi-Fi networks.

There is another potential source of interference in the 2.4GHz band that is much less publicised. 2.4GHz is also susceptible to certain mobile phone signals that operate in bands just below the Wi-Fi 2.4GHz band. Generally, this is only when mobile phones are in very close proximity to the Wi-Fi router.

There is much activity in the 5GHz band and it has more available, non-overlapping channels than the 2.4GHz band so it suffers significantly less with interference. Typical sources of interference in this band include cordless phones, radar systems and other nearby IEEE 802.11a, n and ac Wi-Fi networks.

Another source of interference that is often overlooked is the cabling into the Wi-Fi router. Poor quality cabling can allow the RF transmission to corrupt the data on the cabling and vice versa. Also, avoid using over-length cables and having the slack cable coiled around the or near the wireless router as this will act as an antenna and exacerbate this interference problem.

Considerations

Avoid installing the router or operating any of the wireless devices near any of the noise sources above. Noise can be very difficult to avoid but sometimes moving the router a metre one way or another can improve the noise immunity considerably. If you have ever been through the experience of moving your FM or AM radio around to achieve a better signal you will know how a little movement can go a long way in defeating interference and improving signal reception. The major disadvantage with doing this with Wi-Fi is you may not see any immediate feedback as to whether the new location has made any difference!

Installations should always be completed in a tidy manner. Tidy network installations are much less likely to suffer with operational problems. Always use good quality data cables and keep them away from power cables and the router antennas. Keep data cable lengths to a minimum. If data cables are longer than you need, avoid coiling them to take up any slack, if cables are too long they are better left in a random fashion rather than coiled in a neat circle.

Never hide the wireless router.

Although wireless routers may not be considered an aesthetically pleasing feature they do need clear access to the air space. Shutting them away in cupboards or hiding them behind your server or PC tower under your desk may severely impact on the performance of your office Wi-Fi network.

Considerations

Avoid hiding your router at all costs. If you do have to hide it, make sure the materials you choose to hide it behind allow the signals to propagate effectively

router

Avoid siting your Wi-Fi router close your staff.

There are several issues with working right on top of your wireless router. It is not good practice to position wireless routers very close to where people are going to be sitting. Wireless routers are likely to be transmitting a higher power than smart phones, tablets and laptops so I recommend maintaining some distance between the Wi-Fi router and where people sit for prolonged periods.

Working with a wireless device too close to the router can have a detrimental effect on performance. The signal may be too strong and distorted causing data corruption and retransmissions which will slow down the performance considerably.

If your device is immediately above or below the wireless router it may be in an area of weak signal. This is a phenomenon caused by the positioning of the antennas in the router.

And lastly, humans are made up of 60% water and we can do a great job when it comes to absorbing the Wi-Fi signal.

Considerations

Always consider where your staff will be working for prolonged periods when siting your wireless router. Having people in close proximity to your Wi-Fi router is likely to reduce the signal strength and affect performance and it is not ideal for you or your colleagues.

Never assume all wireless devices are equal.

Some wireless devices just perform better than others. My iPhone 4 always lost sight of my wireless router when I went into the next room. I have two iPad 2s and they suffered with the same problem. However, I have many other devices that work very well in the same location, including an original iPad, iPad Air 2, MacBook Air, iPhone 5, iPhone 6, various Android devices and a number of PCs.

Considerations

This is a very common problem. There is little you can do about the devices so it is important to ensure your wireless router is in the most optimal position to deliver the strongest signal around your office. Sometimes the only answer is to install Wi-Fi extenders to serve the less capable devices. Wherever possible compare with other devices to determine the nature of the problem.
Never assume you are connected to your Wi-Fi network.

Wi-Fi problems may not be Wi-Fi problems at all. With our smart phones and tablets switching freely between mobile networks and Wi-Fi it is easy to overlook the fact that we are connected to the mobile network when we believe we are connected to the Wi-Fi network. This may be for a number of reasons, the most common being when the Wi-Fi signal from the router is too weak to maintain a connection or the Wi-Fi router cannot ‘hear’ the device. If any of your neighbours have a wireless network with no security configured you may inadvertently become connected to your neighbour’s network rather than your own.

Considerations

Check the Wi-Fi symbol on your device to make sure you are connected to a wireless before diagnosing any performance issues. Make sure you have the correct security key for your office network and you are connected to your own Wi-Fi network.

Securing your wireless network.

Always configure the access security on your wireless network. A small office and home Wi-Fi router may have a number of security options, depending on the age and model some of these options may not offer any security at all. There may be a number of acronyms used in the security configuration, you should specifically look for WPA2-PSK AES. If AES is not mentioned in the configuration settings on the Wi-Fi router, check the specifications to make sure it is using AES rather than anything else (such as TKIP). It is beyond the scope of this article to go into the detail of encryption standards but I must emphasise if you are in doubt contact us and request a Tech Surgery to assist you in securing your Wi-Fi network.

Netgear screenshot

Based on what we know today we would use WPA2-PSK (AES). I refer to “what we know today” as encryption methods can be breeched and when this happens we must move to a new standard. There are enterprise alternatives to WPA2-PSK (AES) used by larger organisations but these are beyond the scope of this article.

Another caveat is that we must use a strong pass-phrase as this is our encryption key. The stronger the pass-phrase the better the encryption. If we use WPA2-PSK (AES) with a strong pass-phrase our network will be secured to a reasonable level.

In addition to this, it is important to ensure your Wi-Fi router is running with the latest software. Most small office and home grade Wi-Fi routers have a menu feature to check and update software. Updating software always carries some risk. Although it is rare for a Wi-Fi router to completely fail as a result of a software upgrade it is wise to be prepared for the worst by having a spare Wi-Fi router to hand or a phone number of a friendly network engineer.

netgear screenshot

Another factor to bear in mind. There is a fundamental flaw in using WPA2-PSK (AES) and that is that you must give out the pass-phrase to your staff and maybe even trusted visitors to enable them to access your network. If you have regular visitors you may want to consider having a separate ‘Guest’ network. Some small office and home grade Wi-Fi routers have the option to create a guest network to provide some separation from your internal network.

Netgear screen shot

Consider changing the pass-phrase periodically to reduce the risk to your network should your pass-phrase become common knowledge. Remember, Wi-Fi signals pass beyond the walls of your office so a network intruder does not have to gain physical access to your office in order to infiltrate your network. You may even want to consider changing your pass-phrase whenever one of your staff leave the organisation and have the process included in a ‘leavers policy’.

As with anything regarding security, what you are trying to protect sets the parameters for network security. So, should you still go to these lengths to secure your network even if you do not host any servers or sensitive data on your network? Yes, you do, to prevent someone using your network for nefarious activity, to provide a reasonable level of security to protect the users on your network and to stop other people stealing your internet bandwidth.

What next?

If having taken all the above into account you are still suffering a poor Wi-Fi experience. Contact CITA and apply for a Tech Surgery to discuss your Wi-Fi network issues with one of our volunteers.